With it being the largest theatre in the North East, and the only venue between Manchester and Edinburgh capable of housing large scale touring productions from London’s West End, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Empire pretty much has the monopoly on theatre in Sunderland.
But how many of us, when we fancy a night of live drama or comedy, would think of going to, or even be aware of, the Royalty Theatre?
What’s that you say? The Royalty Theatre? Never heard of it? Well, I can understand that. It is, to be honest, almost hidden away on a small street (The Royalty) just off Chester Road, opposite the Royalty pub. An unassuming building which, from the outside, looks pretty small and pokey. But looks can be deceiving.
Step through the doors and immediately you come face to face with a thriving hub of activity and the home of what used to be known as the Sunderland Drama Club, now called Royalty Theatre Sunderland. A group of amateur actors, directors and backstage crew who work together to put on seven productions a year here, including a pantomime. You can read the full history of the company, from its inaugural meeting in October 1925, here.
Amateurs can certainly have a bit of a bad reputation. A bunch of self-indulgent middle-class OAP’s putting on dated Agatha Christie’s in a draughty church hall, serving weak orange juice and running a bingo during the interval. But believe me, when I visited the Royalty Theatre earlier this week to see one of their productions, I realised that nothing could be further from the truth here.
The first thing to say is this in no draughty church hall. This is a real theatre, complete with a fully functioning proscenium arch stage, full lighting rig, state-of-the-art sound equipment, and a very comfortable 216 seat auditorium. I was allowed to take a closer look at the set, and was very impressed by the attention to detail, and the obvious hard work that had gone into building it.
The next (very pleasant) surprise was the bar. Far from being restricted to plastic cups of fruit juice and cups of weak tea served from an ancient metal urn, the Royalty Theatre has its own well stocked, fully licensed bar, which was open before and after the play, as well as during the interval. It was a great room to sit and take in the buzz of the place, and discuss the play we’d just seen with other equally enthusiastic theatre-goers. And the bar prices were pretty reasonable too!
In fact, I was really impressed with how friendly and welcoming all of the staff at the Royalty were – not to mention professional in their attitude. As well as putting on their seven main house productions each year they hold regular social evenings, including quiz nights, informal play readings, and open auditions. And every Friday night, they told me, they simply open the green room bar for members to meet, have a drink and simply catch up. They’re always open to welcoming new members through the doors (I’ll certainly be going back again!) and you can find out more about that on their website, or just pop in on a Friday night.
As for the play I saw – well, that surpassed all expectations. Every member of the 5-strong cast was superb; their acting was strong and their comedy skills were excellent. The entire audience really enjoyed themselves.
Towards the end of the night as people put on their coats and went out into the cold night, I heard some of them commenting on the fact that they’d never been to a play here before and were pleasantly surprised by the whole experience, and I wondered how many others in Sunderland were simply unaware of this hidden jewel in our city.
If, like them, you’ve never been to the Royalty Theatre, I strongly recommend you give it a try. You can buy tickets for their plays at the Sunderland Tourist Information Centre, or on the door on the evening of any performance (subject to availability). You never know, you too may be pleasantly surprised and find yourself wanting to return.
They’ve got three more productions coming up this season, including one in their studio theatre. (Yes, they also have a studio theatre! Where they put on smaller productions and try out more experimental pieces of theatre.) They also hire the building out to other organisations, and it seems to me a perfect place to hold business lectures, conferences, or award ceremonies.